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Pettine Zoo: Don’t only blame the coach when players are underperforming

Mike Pettine makes an easy scapegoat for some of the Packers defensive struggles, but don’t feed the animals on that one just yet. Right now, the biggest problem for Green Bay is its best players not playing well.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints
The Packers inability to control Alvin Kamara nearly cost them the game on Sunday night.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Fire Dom Capers, errr ... wait. The Green Bay Packers defense will set the team record for points allowed if they stay on this pace, giving up more than 28 points per game so far this season, setting up some crucial questions about the future of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The NFC Championship bloodbath raised questions from fans and media over Pettine’s future, but Matt LaFleur dismissed the idea Pettine was on the hot seat. Considering the tackling performance the Packers put on Sunday against Alvin Kamara, the demons from that San Francisco 49ers demolition pop back up. While Pettine shoulders some blame for this slow defensive start, Green Bay’s struggles start with the team’s best players.

First though, the doom and gloom of this season may be overstated. If we remove the dregs of garbage time and focus on plays where teams had a win percentage between 5% and 95%, the Packers defense ranks 10th in estimated points added per play and 6th in EPA/play against the pass. The 31 total points scored in the 4th quarters of two blowout games skew Green Bay’s points allowed metrics, an already-flawed way to approach defensive evaluation.

In short, when the game has been there to win or lose, Pettine’s group comes through more than they fail. They forced the big turnover and effected the critical stop late in the game against the Saints. Chandon Sullivan’s pick-six in Week 2 against the Lions all but sealed that win. And Aaron Rodgers’ high-powered offense serves as the team’s best run defense right now.

They shut down Kirk Cousins for three quarters when the game was still in doubt, took away Matthew Stafford and a run game that was killing them after the first quarter, and even without Kenny Clark and Christian Kirksey, managed to keep the Saints under 30 until the closing minutes of the game. They’re not terrible, but they’re not playing their best either.

Therein lies the key to potential improvement this season for the Packers. They have the talent on that side of the ball to be better than they’ve been, even if some of their numbers are misleading to the negative aspects of their play.

Still, some of Pettine’s approaches can be questioned. His pass approach against the Vikings allowed Cousins to attempt a comeback that required the Packers offense to match three late touchdowns. A slow start dropped Green Bay behind 14-3 early in Week 2. And despite Drew Brees’ inability to make throws down the field, Green Bay played predominantly two-shell looks — in fairness, Cover-2 and Cover-4 have been effective against the Saints this season — and regularly failed to account for Alvin Kamara in the passing game.

We can’t be surprised by some of the regression either. The Packers were 4th in interceptions per drive last season, and 6th in turnovers forced per drive. They were also 4th in points per red zone trip thanks in large part to their ability (and some luck) to create turnovers. Consistently creating turnovers proves elusive over time, one of the reasons regression for Green Bay looked inevitable.

Through three weeks, the Packers are one of the worst red zone defenses in football, allowing a staggering 6 points per red zone trip, 30th in the league. They’re also not getting off the field on third down. After allowing 38% of third downs to be converted last year, 13th in the league, Pettine’s group has jumped to 48.3% this season, 25th in football.

The bizarre thing about the third-down numbers though? Somehow the Packers are 2nd in 3-and-outs per drive forced. When they are getting stops on third down, it’s to set up quick exchanges back to the offense as they did Sunday night to set up the clinching touchdown. Green Bay allowed New Orleans to convert 5 of 11 third downs, but half of the non-conversions were 3-and-outs, including the clinching stop by Chandon Sullivan late in the fourth quarter.

Situational defense can be volatile thanks to small sample sizes and if a 16-game sample is small and a three-week sample size ridiculously tiny. The answer to all of the above, though, is the same: the team’s best players have to play better. And they can. We know that because they did last year.

Mileage on Pro Football Focus grades for people will vary, but they’re particularly useful on the margins or when they show wild swings. When some of the most exciting players from 2019 grade far below for 2020, the grades match what our eyes already tell us.

Adrian Amos, Dean Lowry, Darnell Savage, and Preston Smith in particular look to be playing down from last season, with Smith especially showing some rust. His 48.7 overall grade checks in well below his 66.5 grade last season. Savage, who was supposed to take a jump in Year 2 has taken it in the wrong direction, going from 66.5 overall last season to 52.4 so far in 2020. His counterpart Amos hasn’t fared much better, coming in at 56.1 overall through three weeks after a stellar 2019 season grading out at 75.7, the 4th best on the entire defense last season, third-best among starters.

Za’Darius Smith played well over his career pace last season, putting together one of the best defensive seasons in football and hasn’t come close to matching it in 2020. His 5% pressure rate checks in at 13 of his league-leading 18.2% last season. He’s been impactful in moments every game, including the momentous fumble he forced on Tayson Hill to set up the go-ahead field goal against the Saints, but down to down he’s not wrecking games like he did last season.

Even if we go back to his part-time pass-rushing days with the Ravens, he’s playing as ineffectively as a pass rusher as we’ve seen him be in years. For what Green Bay is paying him, his play must be better and we know it can be. We saw it last year.

And this is a problem with the pass rush right now: they’re not just below where they were last year when they produced at an elite rate, they’re near the bottom of the league in getting to opposing quarterbacks. Only the Texans, Vikings, Panthers, Bengals and Lions have fewer hits on QBs than the Packers right now. ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate puts them 28th in the league, which means their guys just aren’t beating their blockers, which is the opposite of what we saw last season when seemingly no one could block this front.

The loss of Kenny Clark can’t explain it all either because Smith destroyed the Bears, Vikings, Broncos and just about everyone early in the season last year even when Clark was dealing with a calf injury. The Smith Brothers’ individual play hasn’t been what we’ve come to expect.

Luckily Jaire Alexander took the proverbial next step and has been an absolute black hole on his side of the field. Against the Saints, he saw two targets, allowing one catch for -2 yards with a PBU. With Chandon Sullivan maintaining the quality in the slot and Kevin King playing around his level in coverage but bringing better tackling to the table, this secondary can’t be faulted for the the struggles this team faces.

Rashan Gary leads the team in pressures with seven, and looks to be the most consistent, healthy pass rusher on the team right now. Even he’s banged up coming out of the Saints game, but his evolution as a player was supposed to be an add-

Some soft calls from Pettine late in games clearly affects their aggressiveness and ability to be in a position to contest catches. If the front can’t get pressure, those off coverages turn into easy completions for opposing quarterbacks and the Packers have played a quality slate of them so far this season.

Found money with Krys Barnes at linebacker and the development of Kinglsey Keke into a legitimately disruptive force could present significant room for improvement for this defense assuming its best players can play to their abilities. Even if they play to 85% of their ability, these improvements, along with the development of a star like Alexander and Gary’s rapid growth sets up a defense with the ability to take strides over the course of the season.

If these improvements meet with players like Amos, Savage and the Smith’s just meeting their 2019 levels of play—forget the leap we expected from the young safety duo in particular—this defense could once again be the kind of unit that can tilt the field and decide games.